As a self-proclaimed ‘loner,’ Larry, now 66, took to a transient lifestyle since the time he was 14. Although his parents provided a home and essentials, Larry didn’t feel loved by his parents or 5 siblings and never felt attached to them or his home.
So at 14 he decided to hitchhike from his home near Detroit to California and back just to see if he could. He says he had no problem finding a ride or finding a place to sleep. It’s not hard to find a place to sleep when you’re willing to sleep in the open air.
His budding desire to travel was fueled by his first trip to California. Unfortunately, his entire life would become the odd juxtaposition between traveling freely around the country and being incarcerated.
Larry got good at breaking and entering. According to Larry he mainly stole from homes, garages, and cars that were left unlocked, but he also never met a lock that stopped him.
The locks might not have stopped him, but the police did. Thus, he earned himself a 3-year stint in a juvenile detention home. His detention did not have the desired effect of changing Larry’s behavior. Upon his release he wasted no time getting back to burglary… while traveling all throughout the country.
Larry was also always able and willing to find work wherever he landed. Throughout his life he has worked many types of jobs from temporary help on produce farms, to ranch hand, to gas station attendant, to work in a paper mill, and could most often be found traveling with the carnival. Larry never liked to commit himself to one place for long making carnival work his favorite. When he couldn’t afford a hotel room, he would make himself at home under bridges, on benches, or in barns that were left unlocked.
Despite finding work, Larry continued to supplement his income through theft. And a growing drug addiction problem left him always in need of cash.
Fortunately for society, but unfortunately for Larry, he was arrested multiple times for his illegal activities. In fact, Larry has spent nearly half of his 66 years behind bars… in 3 states.
When asked about prison, Larry answers matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t all bad. I earned my GED and completed 1 year of college.” He jokes that he aced Russian History but had to take Sociology twice just to get a ‘D.’ “I guess I just don’t understand people!” The biggest downside to incarceration? He left his first prison stint with a $200/day heroin habit. According to Larry (who appears to simply be reporting facts and not trying to impress us with his story) drugs like heroin and crack cocaine flowed freely throughout the prison. He said he has heard estimates that over $1 million in cash was constantly exchanged by prisoners inside the prison walls at that time.
Leaving prison with a drug habit left almost no question that he would wind up behind bars again. He broke parole and returned. After his second release Larry decided he needed to become someone else. Using false identities he became several other people. Still, he would serve two more prison sentences in two other states.
Larry states that mainly he hated being locked up. This is a man who wanted to travel the country with no ties to a certain place. However, upon his final stint in prison he was eligible to apply for early release and did not. His case manager in the prison insisted that he apply. Larry wanted to serve his entire sentence so that he could be released free and clear and not on parole.
It didn’t matter. The prison needed room for a new influx of prisoners and Larry had never been a violent offender so he was forced to leave with 15 months remaining on his sentence. He refused but was escorted out of prison by the guards. Not surprisingly, Larry took off breaking his parole. He planned to never ever go back to prison.
Thus began Larry’s 17 years of “looking over his shoulder.” As he moved around and frequently changed identities to evade being sent back to prison, he lived under the constant stress of staying anonymous. He didn’t dare get into any trouble. A couple of years into this lifestyle he came to the realization that he had to stop taking drugs. It was too expensive and either his habit was going to kill him or get him caught. A couple of buddies set him up in a remote cabin where he quit heroin and cocaine cold turkey. These friends would check on him every couple of days and leave food and water. The withdrawal nearly killed him, but with his fake identity he couldn’t risk a hospital stay. He survived the “three months of hell.”
Larry has been off ‘hard drugs’ for nearly 13 years. He doesn’t plan on breaking his unfiltered cigarette ‘habit’ that he has had since the age of 12.
Quitting the drugs was his first major step toward turning his life around. “I wish I had done it 20 years earlier… but I didn’t,” he says.
Although Larry tried to stay far away from any trouble, in an ironic twist of events, he was arrested after leaving work one day in Galesburg. When asked why he was under arrest, it was for being behind on his child support payments. Larry had never had any children… but the individual whose identity he had ‘borrowed’ did. So Larry served his jail sentence as another person. This was the last time Larry would be behind bars.
Back in 1996 Larry met a girl who also worked for the carnival. She had ties near Ottawa and the two landed in the area together looking for work. This marked Larry’s first visit to Ottawa PADS. Things didn’t work out with the girlfriend, but Larry enjoyed this area and felt that the people in Ottawa were the friendliest he had met. So he kept coming back. In all, Larry estimates that he has stayed 8 times (all brief) at the Ottawa Shelter. He always kept all of the rules and treated staff with respect, but he never stayed long enough to receive more than meals, a bed, and temporary assistance with transportation.
When Marissa Melau, current Ottawa PADS Program Director, began her job with PADS, Larry is the first client she met when she walked through the door. Larry immediately told her she was “way too nice and wasn’t going to make it.” What does he think of her now? “She’s still nice, but she got tough real quick,” he says with a smile.
Larry has stayed at the shelter a few times during Marissa’s employment. The two developed a relationship of mutual respect. Marissa explained that Larry had stayed a short time the previous season. “Last year his sole focus was on his physical health. This time was different.” Marissa explains that she noticed the change in Larry’s demeanor when he arrived on the shelter’s door step early this season.
“As soon as he walked through our door he had several goals he wanted to accomplish.” These goals included following through with appointments to address his physical health issues, establishing public assistance such as Medicaid and Link, and following through with a pending legal issue which involved appearing in court.
Despite all of the progress he made, “When it came to housing, Larry was second guessing himself,” says Marissa. Larry had lived for so long without a place to call home that he was afraid he wouldn’t succeed and didn’t want to disappoint those supporting him from the shelter.
Larry remained at Ottawa PADS for 7 months this season. As always, he was compliant with the rules. He attended the classes that he was assigned. He completed chores. He even frequently helped move donations and items in the shelter.
Larry still states that he is a ‘loner,’ but he noticeably kept an eye out for other clients who seemed to be struggling. And for the man who struggled with Sociology class as a young adult, Marissa explains that he reads people really well (perhaps from all of his years of experience reading the carnival crowd to pick out individuals who would spend money at his booth.) During the day Larry could be found sitting at the park keeping a close watch on another client who he was worried about.
Larry’s knees are getting worn out making it far more difficult for him to walk the great distances that he is accustomed to. He also developed a terrible cough this past year that just wouldn’t go away. At the urging of Ottawa PADS staff, he was checked out by a physician. It’s COPD. With his age and his new health concerns being major factors, Larry decided that for the first time in his life he wanted to “stay put.”
There was one MAJOR obstacle in reaching his goal of finally having a place to call home. In order to receive assistance, Larry needed a state I.D. This would be simple to obtain for most, but nearly impossible for Larry who has spent the last 17 years living under false identities (Larry is his real identity, by the way).
When Larry visited the DMV to ask how to apply for identification, he was told there was a ‘Fraud Stop’ on his I.D. In order to clear up the legal issue he would need to contact the Illinois Secretary of State Police. He did so and was told that an agent would come to meet him to clear up issues. No one came.
So with the counseling of Marissa along with other staff, Larry did the scariest thing he has ever done. He willingly entered the IL Secretary of State police station in Villa Park, IL, to verify his real identity. Would they have an arresting officer there to meet him? Inside the station an officer laid out his false and real identities in front of Larry. Larry came clean about his entire life on the run, about whose identities he had used, about spending time in jail as another person, and verified who he really was.
In the end, Larry did not have to return to prison to serve any time because it would be costly to transport him to another state and incarcerate him. The police department ultimately decided that his lifestyle of having to continually look over his shoulder for 17 years was a far more difficult punishment than had he served his full sentence.
It took a while, but Larry finally received his IL identification card. With I.D. in hand Ottawa PADS was able to refer Larry to Tri-County Opportunities Council. Tri-County sent a representative to meet with Larry to identify if he met criteria for assistance. While Tri-County processed extensive paperwork, Larry got busy and located a potential rental home. Tri-County approved his application and assisted him with the deposit and first month’s rent as well as with grocery vouchers. The organization will continue to work with Larry on an ongoing basis.
For the first time in Larry’s entire life he put together a budget with the Ottawa PADS staff to make sure he can successfully make rent payments and still afford groceries.
Three weeks ago Larry moved into the first house he has lived in since he was 14 years old. He signed a one year lease agreement – quite a commitment for someone who never stayed anywhere for longer than a few months. When asked how he felt about it he explained that for the first time in his 66 years he feels content.
Life as a renter is new, and he is still adjusting. He walks around town as much as he can. He collects cans. He stays in touch with some of the people he has met at the shelter and throughout his travels. (He received two phone calls and one text during the hour that it took to share his story.) He is anxious for his television to get hooked up, but he listens to his music. Loud. After all, he was able to move into a house so he doesn’t have apartment neighbors to complain about the noise. And he’s had a couple of buddies over to play cards since moving in.
Here’s what Larry wants others to know about his 66-year journey through homelessness and incarceration. “If there’s the desire, there’s hope.”
Larry states that to be successful you can’t buy into the negativity, and you can’t grumble about your misfortunes. “You’ve got to do something about it.”